Though he received enough support to advance to a runoff next month, more than 850,000 of the 1.1 million people who voted last weekend in Louisiana pulled the lever for someone other than Republican Sen. David Vitter.
Ahead of the Nov. 21 vote — where the veteran politician who has weathered big storms before will face Louisiana House Democratic Leader John Bel Edwards – Vitter's goal is clear: Convincing most of the 381,000 voters who supported his Republican opponents that he is a good second choice. "It's too many of the Baton Rouge politicians that have failed us," Vitter told supporters on election night , his opening play against his sole rival. His campaign is already trying to tie Edwards directly to President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in the state.
Edwards, a West Point-educated former Army Ranger who has run his campaign as a pro-life, pro-gun conservative Democrat, received about 4o percent of the vote, less than Sen. Mary L. Landrieu received during the 2014 primary, but well above Vitter's 23 percent.
Combined, Vitter’s two Republican rivals outpaced him by 15 points, meaning 60 percent of the party's voters voted against him.
His two opponents were not political nobodies. One, Jay Dardenne, is the sitting lieutenant governor. The other, Scott Angelle, is a former statewide elected official who serves on the state’s Public Service Commission.
With 19 percent of the vote, Angelle coalesced Christian conservatives who responded to concerns about Vitter’s personal woes, which were highlighted by him during debates and in television ads by outside groups that featured Vitter’s 2007 scandal involving prostitutes and the so-called “D.C. madam.” Dardenne, meanwhile, pulled 15 percent by bringing together the state’s moderate Republican voters behind his campaign.
“The numbers weren’t that far off from what we and other people anticipated. You had three significant Republicans. They each had a strong geographical base. They ran good campaigns,” said Luke Bolar, a spokesman for Vitter’s campaign. “They’re going to inevitably get a good chunk of a vote, so I don’t think anyone ever thought that any Republican was going to run first in this primary.”
While Louisiana has become a solidly red state, Louisiana Democratic Party spokesman Beau Tidwell said the challenge of beating Vitter is not as daunting as it seems. In his view, some of that anti-Vitter Republican vote is up for grabs — a challenge that could be more simple if any Republicans simply stay home.
“His support has a high floor and a low ceiling, and we've already seen him hit it. Already, you've got Republican voters who supported one of Vitter's rivals making the jump to John Bel Edwards, because they know Vitter would be toxic for this state,” Tidwell said, pointing to his endorsement by a Marsanne Golsby , a Baton Rouge-based Republican communicator who worked for Dardenne's campaign.
Tidwell, pointing to the state's outgoing governor's unpopularity among Pelican State voters, added: “For all his obscene fundraising prowess, Vitter is as disliked among Louisiana Republicans as Bobby Jindal is, and that's saying something."
Even before the primary, with ads from the Republican Governors Association, the party's case against Edwards had already begun. According to them, despite his moderate persona, he is nothing but a “true believer” in President Barack Obama and his agenda.
“The biggest threat to any challenge on Second Amendment rights and any attempts to pass pro-life legislation is the president, and if he has been supportive, and he is supportive, it’s hard for him to claim pro-life, pro-Second Amendment credentials,” said Bolar.
While groups like the RGA in Vitter's corner, Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, said Monday the organization has already sent staff to Louisiana and expects to stay engaged in the runoff.
Still, Vitter's weak performance in the pre-primary polls and on Saturday prompted the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call to change its rating of the race from Republican Favored to Lean Republican.
If Vitter loses next month, he has yet to indicate whether he would seek re-election to the Senate when his seat is up in 2016. Nothing would prohibit him from doing so, but he would be damaged from an embarrassing statewide loss.
When asked what Vitter might do, Bolar said, “He’s focused on winning the governor’s race.”
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